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Beyond the Classroom: Does social media amplify cruelty?

By Staff | Nov 21, 2014

The parent advisory committee and I are currently reading It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens written by Danah Boyd. Boyd challenges our thinking in regards to the use of social media.

It is often difficult to define bullying, especially in the digital era. Each person may define it differently depending on the situation. Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus provides three components that are central to bullying, and they are aggression, repetition and imbalance of power. This means that one-time acts of harassment, and reciprocal acts are not bullying based on Olweus’s definition.

According to Boyd, “Adults use bullying as an umbrella term” (Boyd, 2014, p. 132). We have to be careful when we use the term bullying. We have to know what it is, and what it is not. Many of the issues that we deal with at school are reciprocal acts, like friends spreading rumors about each other because of a recent fight. It doesn’t make these acts less painful, but we would not consider these incidents as bullying. The acts may include aggression, but lack repetition and differential power, which are essential to the bullying definition above.

I think there is an assumption that social media has amplified the amount of bullying that occurs inside and outside of school. The media has highly publicized bullying and now most states including North Dakota have bullying laws. Many of the teens that Boyd interviewed indicated that bullying was not a significant issue in their peer group. Students that were interviewed separated gossip and rumors from their own bullying definition. Boyd explained, “These teens confidently told us that bullying was “so middle school” and that teenagers “grow out of it” (Boyd, 2014, p. 137).

Instead, teens referred to interpersonal conflict as drama. Boyd defined drama as, “performative, interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media” (Boyd, 2014, p. 138). It is difficult to find who is at fault in these instances due to the reciprocal actions of those involved in the drama. Students that get caught up in the drama often see other people as the ones causing problems. According to Boyd, attention becomes a commodity, and teens that participate in drama intentionally or accidentally can be hurtful to others.

When teens understand how their actions online affect others they are more apt to understand the consequences of their actions (Boyd, 2014). I don’t believe social media has amplified meanness and cruelty, but it certainly has made these issues more public. Social media can increase the damage and speed of rumors and cause pain to others. Empathy and resiliency are important traits for all teens to have as new technologies come our way. Blaming new technologies or sheltering our children from them will not decrease conflicts. Helping your teen to understand conflict, and the appropriate ways to handle it are vital to their growth.

Source: Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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